Junior hockey’s return to play

Could this be the beginning of more junior hockey action?

The news that the 12 teams representing the Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League have been cleared for an immediate return to the playing of games might be taken as good news for the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

As the province of Saskatchewan has relatively few cases of the coronavirus, so too does northeastern Ontario, where 10 of the NOJHL’s 11 teams are located.

The NOJHL’s 11th entry, the Soo Eagles — who are based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and separated from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario by a mere two miles of the International Bridge — have already started a series of exhibition games with American based teams and schools.

While no one will dare say it for the record, the consensus among NOJHL owners, general managers and coaches who I have talked to is that members teams are rather optimistic that the league will be cleared to begin its exhibition schedule at some point in November and that fans will be allowed in buildings when regular season play gets underway.

As is the case with the aforementioned Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League — where a maximum of 150 spectators will be allowed in arenas, at least for the time being — the NOJHL also fully expects that some sort of spectator limit will be in place for its teams.

Predictably and as expected, NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca will not give an official comment as to when he thinks his league might be cleared for a return to play.

But it is worth noting that NOJHL teams have been holding in-house scrimmages and skill sessions for a few weeks now, while abiding by safety precautions as set out by the league and various health officials.

It is also worth noting that as its commander in chief, Mazzuca represents a smart, thorough individual at the helm of the NOJHL. Let it be said that Mazzuca cuts no corners and completes his due diligence and homework to the point of being obsessive — which, while he can be annoying, is a bonus for the league, its teams, and its supporters.

Should the NOJHL be cleared to play and the Canada – United States border remain closed for the foreseeable future, Mazzuca has said the league will begin the season with the 10 northeastern Ontario based teams if need be.

Mazzuca also said that the NOJHL would almost certainly limit play to within its East and West divisions with no crossover games, thus cutting down on travel and overnight stays in hotels.

It is also expected that if the border is still closed when play resumes, that the NOJHL would move the French River Rapids from the East to the West, thus giving the league five teams in each division.

That way, it would be the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Espanola Express, Rayside Balfour Canadians and French River in the West Division and the Hearst Lumberjacks, Timmins Rock, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Powassan Voodoos in the East Division.

Meantime, as the Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League has been cleared for an immediate return to play, here is hoping that the NOJHL is not far behind in taking to the ice.

Randy Russon
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Randy Russon

Hockey News North strives to serve as an insightful look into amateur hockey at the minor, junior and college levels. Seasoned Sault Ste. Marie sportswriter Randy Russon is a featured columnist for Hockey News North. Randy Russon’s media career began in October, 1975 at CKCY Radio in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He joined Sault This Week in February, 1982 and has been its primary sportswriter ever since. Besides writing for Sault This Week and Hockey News North, Russon hosts the weekly Hockey North Show on ESPN 1400 Radio.

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